Comparing and contrasting the literary devices employed in two different books

Writing is more than just stringing words together and communicating with characters. In her essay Blacks Matters, Rather Morrison examines the process by which authors turn their circumstances into a feature of language that aids in communicating their message and influencing reader behavior. (Morrison 204). She continues by pointing out that writers can tell tales, engage in combat, and incite various types of discussion in their texts. Morrison discusses the impact of a literary book's author and characters' social positioning on readers' perceptions. (Morrison 204). She criticizes the absence of African representation in the American canon as according to her view the literature in the United States only portrays an invented Africa instead of the original one. Any criticism of these principles is equally suppressed, and surprisingly, the white who take a stand for defending the Africans position are prejudiced. It is therefore clear that the literature is used to perpetuate racial discrimination on the blacks and that explains why very few if any of the books written by African Americans are not included among the school readers (Morrison 206).

This paper examines the stylistic devices and strategies employed by two authors in their works by comparing and contrasting them. Moreover, the discussion will be based on the aspects of Morrison’s article Black Matters. Some of the techniques that are to be considered in the analysis are themes, characters selection, and the stylistic devices used. The selected books are Sonny's Blues and The Dutchman.

Comparing and Contrasting Sonny's Blues and The Dutchman

Despite being written by two different individuals, these two works share numerous aspects and especially themes and mood. However, the character traits, elements of setting and method of writing are significantly different between these pieces of literature. The variation in the stylistic devices and genre brings out the uniqueness of each item considering that The Dutchman is a play while Sonny's Blues is a short story.

Setting of the Stories

These two books are set in a racial society to depict the plight of the African American people in the United States in the early and mid-20th century. The short story Sonny's Blues is set in Harlem a slum in the New York City that is predominantly occupied by poor black Americans who are trapped in this wretchedness for centuries. On the other hand, The Dutchman is set in a train station where there is a free interaction between the white and black Americans (Baraka and Baraka 123). The location of the play and the presence of both races give an opportunity for the audience to evaluate the perception of the whites towards the Africans despite their coexistence (Rebhorn 796). The train brings Lula, a white lady asserts herself on Clay who is African by origin, and he has no option but to get into the conversation that Lula creates for him (Baraka and Baraka 123). Despite his masculine state, he cannot decide on what to think as the discussion is controlled and directed by Lula’s desires. She convinces him that he was looking at her all the way.

“LULA: I even got into this train, going some other way than mine. Walked down the aisle…searching you out.”

“CLAY: Really? That is pretty funny.” (Baraka 12)

The Harlem slum setting provide a vivid picture of the life of the blacks as they cannot afford better housing facilities, and even schooling is a problem primarily if the academic institutions are located within the same area. The increased use of cocaine, heroin, and other hard drugs shifts the students’ attention from classroom discourse. The teacher has various thoughts concerning his personal life that he is not fully focused on his duty. Such lack of concentration from the teacher implies poor outcome and the children will never get the chance to advance outside the boundaries of this poverty in the community. The narrator argues that;

“When the last bell rang, the last class ended, I let out my breath. It seemed I’d been holding it for all that time...I sat alone in the classroom all that time…I listened to the boys outside…perhaps I was listening to them because I was thinking about my brother and in them, I heard my brother and myself.” (Baldwin 123)

From Lula’s statement, it is clear that the majority of people living in this area have common challenges. The narrator’s brother (Sonny) is in jail, and the rest of the boys in the society are also arrested in the poor conditions some of them are even drug addicts like Sonny (Baldwin124). It is a setting where young men and women have the freedom to do whatever they want as permitted by the surrounding environment (Baraka and Baraka 123). The similarity between the settings of the two books is that they all depict an oppressed group of individuals in their country.

Lula tells Clay that;

“Boy, those narrow shoulders clothes come from a tradition you ought to feel oppressed by…what right do you have to be wearing a three-button suit and a striped tie? Your grandfather was a slave; he didn’t go to Harvard.” (Baraka 18)

This statement shows that the nonwhites had no right to clothes and could only be slaves to their white counterparts. They could not even be considered for admission into expensive state colleges like Harvard and thus were not considered learned but just fools. This is what Morrison criticizes in her book Black Matters Clay is only being used for plot development in The Dutchman where he cannot even decide the direction of the conversation (Morrison 204).

Thematic Analysis

The authors agree on various themes including racial discrimination, poverty, the plight of African Americans, imprisonment and alienation among others. The first instance of separation is observed in character Clay as he decides to dress the whites’ style running away from his tradition (Rebhorn 796). It is unusual to find an African American to put on a suit and a tie something which is a preserve for the masters (Baraka and Baraka 123). Lula even blasts him for this action stating that;

“Boy, those narrow shoulders clothes come from a tradition you ought to feel oppressed by.” (Baraka 18)

It is a pity that even the blacks are ashamed of their real ways of life to the extent that they are adopting the lifestyles of the people who have no respect for them at all.

The narrator in Sonny's Blues is alienated towards the western music that most of his people including Sonny his brother (Baldwin 123). The narrator’s preference of Louis Armstrong songs which are more associated with the whites at the expense of those sung by Charlie Parker is a clear indication of his alienation from the African culture. In a conversation with the brother, the narrator shows that he does not even recognize Parker. He says;

“I’ve been out of touch… You’ll have to be patient with me. Now, who is this Parker character?” (Baldwin 135)

Another dominant topic in the two books is racial prejudice, and this is evident by the segregation of residential areas, dressing styles, and even the kind of music people listen to. Morrison was right; racism does not just stop in real life among Americans but tends to get its way into the writers’ mind (Rebhorn 812). Taking, for instance, the author of The Dutchman, portrays Clay as a lesser man who lacks confidence just because he was not white. Lula takes advantage of Clay’s low self-esteem to force a relationship that is full of mockery, and she ends up killing him. The author takes her out of blame by claiming that it was accidental. However, the situation could have been different were she an African American. Moreover, Lula ridicules Clay’s mode of dressing and makes it clear that some clothes were meant for the whites who are also taken to be African Americans’ oppressors (Baraka and Baraka 123). They could not go to good schools and could only qualify for casual jobs or used as slaves.

“LULA: …Your grandfather was a slave; he didn’t go to Harvard.”

“CLAY: My grandfather was a night watchman.” (Baraka 18)

In Sonny’s Blues, it is Baldwin indicates that blacks only reside in slums where they face numerous challenges including inadequate housing, drug peddling and abuse, and family dysfunction among many others. Sonny is arrested for drug addiction, and it is unfortunate that he is black and therefore the only way to help him is through prison even though there is a better option for the recovery of addicts (Rebhorn 796). His brother does not write for him due to family obligation and pressure of life. He only sends a letter when his daughter dies, and that sparks a lot of conversations between them. The children in high school are also headed for addiction, and this can be evident from their behavior after classes.

“I listened to the boys outside, downstairs, shouting cursing and laughing…It was not the Joyous laughter which - God knows why – one associates with children.” (Baldwin 123)

A significant number of Black Americans residing in Harlem are unemployed, and this is evidenced by the fact that Sonny’s friend always asks the narrator for money whenever they meet. Moreover, most youths are doing drugs, and that is the reason Sonny ended up in jail. They not only abuse heroin but also sell it to earn a living (Rebhorn 812). A significant proportion of them ventures into music bands as the primary occupation and a way to eradicate the stress and frustrations of life. Sonny tells his brother that jazz music and the drugs take away his worries.

Social imprisonment is another dominant theme in the two books despite being addressed differently by each author. Baldwin, in the short story, gives an account of a community trapped in poverty, sorrows, and miseries. The narrator states that;

“…and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my face, trapped in the darkness which road outside.” (Baldwin 122)

Being trapped in this context is symbolic to mean that the narrator and other people in the society have no other alternative but to stay in the slum and face the challenges. Darkness is an indication of poverty and lack of exposure making the youths only think of music, drugs, and the army. People here join national military not because they are patriotic but due to it being the just better way to earn some income (Rebhorn 812). Most young people are trapped in drug addiction, and Sunny is in jail and therefore lacks the freedom to associate with his friends and families. When he finally comes back, he is very eager to see the environment and that explains why he requests the driver to take a route through their former area of residence.

“Do you mind’, he asked ‘if we have the driver drive alongside the park? On the west side – I haven’t seen the city in so long.” (Baldwin 128)

On the other hand, Baraka illustrates that Clay is imprisoned by the over-aggressive Lula who lures him into a romantic relationship and constantly insults him. He calls him dull;

“LULA: …Dull, dull dull. I bet you think I’m exciting.” (Baraka 10)

Despite being educated, Clay is still trapped in the stereotype of being Black and therefore cannot stand his ground (Baraka and Baraka 123). He has, however, allowed himself to be alienated to the White culture and likes to be associated with them as evident by his desire to accompany Lula. He also puts on a suite an outfit that is a reserve for the whites.

Comparing and Contrasting the Stylistic Devices in the Two Books

The first difference that comes out of these works regarding the writing styles is that they belong to distinct sub-genres that are Sonny’s Blues is a short story while The Dutchman is a play. The use of language may also differ with characters and setting. Primarily, both articles employ the use of symbolism, for instance, in The Dutchman; Clay symbolizes the captain of the mythical ship (Flying Dutchman) who perishes due to foolishness and temptations. Clay is first tempted by the beauty of Lula that makes him give in to almost all her ideas (Baraka and Baraka 123). His ignorance of the character of Lula is similar to that of the captain who insists on sailing into the storm instead of retreating, and both ended up dead. (Rebhorn 796) Moreover, just like the Dutchman who was cursed to sail forever, Clay may never leave the train after allowing Lula to seduce him fully aware of the consequences. The title, therefore, bears a lot of symbolism in the play, and Clay is destined to die on the train as the captain of the Dutchman killed in the sea.

“Lula: May people accept you as a ghost of the future” (Baraka)

On the other hand, jazz music symbolizes different things to the two brothers Sonny and the narrator in the story Sonny’s Blues. To the narrator, Jazz is associated with a certain element of people he would like his brother to hang out with is the society (Baldwin 133). He believes that jazz music and drugs go hand in hand that is what has influenced Sonny to become a heroin addict. However, Sonny views the music genre as the escape from all his suffering and that of his friends. Moreover, those people the narrator despises acts as the second family to Sonny, and thus, jazz music is alien to the narrator but comforting to Sonny (Baldwin 133). Nevertheless, at towards the end of the story, jazz becomes a unifying factor for the brothers as the narrator realizes the role it plays in Sonny’s life as he appreciates the wonder and terror of being a musician when his brother performs on the stage. Baldwin further the housing project to represent the perversion in the real world where good ideas come up but are never implemented (Rebhorn 812). The housing project provides false hope for the residents to have affordable houses but this does not actualize. It is referred to as “rocks in a boiling sea” implying that the buildings have become a source of misery to people, it is in the structures where young men take drugs.

Finally, there is a need to highlight a few character traits. In The Dutchman, Baraka utilizes Clay to bring out the element of alienation and foolishness (Baraka and Baraka 123). Clay is alienated and would like to associate with whites by wearing a suit and tie and trying to fall in love with Lula. He is foolish in that, despite understanding the dangers that come with relating to whites, he still allows himself to be seduced by Lula (Rebhorn 812). In fact, he flirts and even kisses her in public. In the long run, he ends up dying on the train. Clay’s character can be compared with that of the narrator in James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues. He says;

“I couldn’t believe it: but what I mean by that is that I couldn’t find any room for it anywhere inside of me. I had kept it outside me for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to know.\" (Baldwin 123)

The narrator is not willing to accept the reality of his brother’s lifestyle as he believes that Sonny is disciplined to be found in the same behavior as the rest of the youths in Harlem. In fact, the narrator can be said to be a white Negro as he associates himself with their behavior and lifestyle (Baldwin 123). He ignores Sonny in prison until when his daughter dies as he believes that Sonny deserves the punishment. Additionally, he recognizes the music of Louis Armstrong which is mostly followed by whites instead of Parker’s jazz loved by the African Americans. When they are discussing respectable musicians with his brother, the first suggestion the narrator gives is Armstrong.

“You mean – like Louis Armstrong” (Baldwin 134)

Lula and Sonny are portrayed as resilient and highly motivated characters in the two books. Lula in The Dutchman shows her resilience by successfully seducing Clay into a conversation and arousing his sexual desire (Baraka and Baraka 123).

“LULA: I was. But only after I’d turned around and saw you staring through that window down in the vicinity of my ass and legs.” (Baraka 7)

She is highly motivated to convince Clay that he started the whole story my staring at her through the window and manages to get closer to him.

On the other hand, Sonny is highly resilient and motivated to become a musician against all the odds. His brother does not support the view of music especially the jazz; however, Sonny is focused on the course until when he convinces his brother of the value of music (Baldwin 134). He even relocates from Isabella’s family apartment to find the freedom of practicing his music.


In summary, it is evident that Morrison’s claim and critics against the use of writing to diminish African Americans is a reality as shown in the play The Dutchman, where Clay is portrayed as a weak and foolish man before Lula. Moreover, both books indicate that the white’s culture is superior to the African one as observed in the alienation of Clay in The Dutchman and the narrator in Sonny’s Blues.

Works Cited


Baldwin, James. Sonny's Blues. Print.

Baraka, Amiri, and Amiri Baraka. Dutchman. New York: Perennial, 2001. Print.

Morrison, Toni. "Black Matter(S)." Grand Street 40 (1991): 204. Web.

Rebhorn, Matthew. "Flying Dutchman: Masochism, Minstrelsy, And The Gender Politics Of Amiri Baraka's Dutchman." Callaloo 26.3 (2003): 796-812. Web.

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